SpeakEasy’s ‘Once on This Island’ Is A Magical Tour of A Mystical Place

Peli Naomi Woods, Kenny Lee, and the cast of SpeakEasy Stage’s Once on This Island (2022). Photos by Nile Scott Studios.

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Once On This Island’ is such a happy, toe-tapping, brightly colored musical, it’s easy to forget that its overarching tragic themes are Caribbean colonialism, racism, and slavery. Part ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (which didn’t end well for those star-crossed lovers, either), part Little Mermaid and part multi-cultural folk fable, the show explains the history of the Island Hispaniola and its eventual split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Yet, the show is not heavy. There is also a contagious high-spirited cheerfulness that amounts to one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of 2022 (and there has been some stiff competition). Erik D. Diaz’s set is eye candy. Pink tiles, a shimmering crescent moon, lush vegetation and outdoor patio dining evoke the laid back magical vibe of island living.

Malik Mitchell, Peli Naomi Woods, Davron S. Monroe, Christina Jones, and Yewande Odetoyinbo

Under the direction of the talented David Freeman Coleman, live calypso music has the audience smiling and seat dancing before the play begins. The cast slowly moseys onto the stage, dressed in bright island finery. They engage and joke with audience members and each other, bantering in clear, easy to eavesdrop patois. The scene is set and the audience is primed.

Then suddenly, the horseshoe shaped stage is on fire, a burst of simultaneous music, song and dance. While there are a dozen individuals who are a “who’s who” of Boston’s finest actors/singers/dancers, in the prologue number, “We Dance,” they are a single, well-oiled ensemble. Voices blend seamlessly in strong, crisp and tuneful harmony. Jazelynn Goudy’s choreography is exciting and even more eye candy. There is so much to absorb sensorially, it’s hard to take it all in.

And that’s before the outstanding Peli Naomi Woods (Ti Moune) explodes onto the stage, commanding its center with confidence and grace while demonstrating her formidable vocal and dancing prowess.

Davron S. Monroe

The overlapping stories of Ti Moun and Haiti (referred to as “the jewel of the Antilles”) unfolds for the next 90 intermission-less minutes as an operetta, (a form of theatrical light opera) that includes spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. Told as a Hans Christian Anderson type of fairy tale fable, we learn about the history of the island and the caste system that divides people according to skin color, origin and wealth. The Beauxhommes, descendants of European colonialists, have the money, the power and the land. The native islanders are poor and stuck in their station. There is no possibility of fraternization, let alone marriage, between the two. Their futures are indelibly tracked.

Still, they all serve the caprices of the local gods, praying to them, fearing them and dancing to their music.

Through Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty’s (music) magnificent libretto, we learn Ti Moun’s story. It all starts with a big storm that left her an orphan. The gods spared her life for a purpose; they chose her for a magical adventure.

She is cared for by Ton-Ton Julian and Mama Euralie and grows up into the magnificent Woods. All is fine until Daniel, son of a wealthy Beauxhomme landowner, catches her eye as he races through her village in a splashy sports car. She becomes convinced they are each other’s destiny. She is determined to find a way for them to be together.

Peli Naomi Woods, Reagan Massó

One day, Daniel crashes his car and Ti Moun finds him. She decides the gods orchestrated this, revealing their plan for her and the reason she survived the storm. She goes into hiding with him, resolved to nurse him back to health. Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, comes to claim him, and Ti Mouns makes a bargain: her life for Daniel’s, payable at Papa Ge’s whim.

Ti Moun believes that love’s force can overcome all, even a bargain with the death god. Like Romeo and Juliet, these two really do love each other but, notwithstanding Ti Moun’s faith, no love is strong enough to overpower social and political mores.

To call “Once on This Island” enjoyable is like saying the Taj Mahal is a nice space. This production sparkles on every level. The musicians are first class. The choreography is inventive and inspired. In one knock-out number, Goudy arms the dancers with silver, shimmering umbrellas. The effect is otherworldly — are they jellyfish? Protective kites? Homage to Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations?” Or are they just there because it’s raining?

It’s hard to know where to begin to give shout outs among the cast. Woods (Ti Moun) is an undergraduate senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee with a bright future that we hope will remain in Boston — at least for a little while. Anthony Pires, Jr. (Ton-Ton Julian) brings a lithe physicality, knock ‘em dead pipes and an irresistible twinkle in his eye to his role. Christina Jones (Erzulie) possesses a quiet substance and the voice of angel. And Becky Bass  (Steel Pannist and narrator/storyteller) is fresh, nuanced and natural. Her facial expressions and body language are magnetic. Kenny Lee, who plays the pivotal role of Daniel, could use a little more seasoning, but that’s something that additional stage time should cure.

Don’t miss this balm of a show. It is a four course, five star theatrical feast.

Once On This Island.” Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Pascale Forestal. Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman; Choreography by Jazelynn Goudy; Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Aja M. Jackson; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Presented by Speakeasy Stage, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA through April 16.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

Lyric Stage’s Superb ‘The Book of Will’ Takes Us Back to the Time of the Bard

Cast of ‘The Book of Will’ at Lyric Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ever wonder about the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, how his plays were preserved in an era when plays were not considered to be important works of literature, plots were largely constructed by the actors and written out in a ‘fair copy’ for their records by the company scribes, and new plays were churned out at an incredibly fast rate to provide the companies with enough material to keep performing new shows all the time?

Well, wonder no more.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s must-see production of ‘The Book of Will’ brings the story of Shakespeare’s legacy, and the women and men devoted to creating and preserving it, to life. Director Courtney O’Connor weaves magic from a smart and inspired script by playwright Lauren Gunderson. For two hours and 15 minutes (with intermission), we willingly time travel back to an era of pubs, plays and camaraderie.

Sound Elizabethan and dull? Not a chance! But first, a little more context.

Playwriting then was a little like writing for a sitcom or a soap opera in the modern day, and once a play was performed, the acting companies would only keep the scripts if they felt they might revive them again down the road. If not, they might sell them off to a publishing house, who would try and make a quick profit on them.

Ed Hoopman, Will McGarrahan, Grace Experience, Joshua Wolf Coleman

By Shakespeare’s time, printing was more common, and book publishing was more of a commercial enterprise. Yet, Shakespeare’s plays were not published all together in his own lifetime. John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell, fellow actors in the Kings Men and devoted friends of the Bard, began collecting the various published versions of Shakespeare’s plays, actors’ scripts, and scribal copies, and edited them together into the First Folio, published in 1623.

The whole project was perhaps an attempt to eulogize Shakespeare and make his work last forever. It’s partly these reasons that allowed his writings to become part of the fabric of English culture and language. His works, which most certainly would have been lost, have been read and circulated endlessly and have had a life of their own, though Shakespeare himself is long dead.

Experience, Sarah Newhouse, Shani Farrell

Janie E. Howland’s set, Elisabetta Polito’s costumes and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design thrust us immediately into the thick of Stratford-on-Avon between 1619 and 1623. From the get-go, the talent and credibility of the actors is obvious. Particularly noteworthy are Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Ben Jonson and others, Will McGarrahan as Richard Burbage and William Jaggard, and the magnificent Ed Hoopman as Henry Condell. (I could listen to Hoopman recite the phone book.)

If Gunderson has strayed from historical fact, it is in her inclusion of women as prominent players in the project. These women are interesting, compelling, ambitious, funny and, in their own ways, powerful. There is not one weak link among the actors. Grace Experience as Alice Heminges (whom she plays with an Audrey Hepburn elegance), Shani Farrell as Elizabeth Condell, and Sarah Newhouse as Rebecca Heminges each bring their own nuances to their roles.

Lest you think this is a play reserved for Shakespeare nerds, think again. Gunderson has infused the script with humor, poetry, pathos and intrigue — ingredients for entertaining theater — as well as factual history.

Experience, Hoopman, Coleman, Fred Sullivan, Jr.

“Shakespeare doesn’t need much help in being revered. He needs help in being human. That’s the real heart of this story,” Gunderson said in an interview. “It really has to be the emotional reason that these people did this almost impossible thing. It comes down to their loves and friendships that really provide the engine for this effort.”

“The Book of Will.” Written by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design by Christopher Brushberg; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Produced by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 140 Clarendon St., Boston through March 27.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.lyricstage.com/

GBSC’s ‘Incident’ Is a Pleasant Trip Down Memory Lane

Cast of ‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ at Greater Boston Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ will strike a particular chord among those of us whose wallets now hold Medicare and AARP cards. Written by Seattle-based playwright, Katie Forgette, it is a loving trip down her personal memory lane. She was raised Catholic and attended parochial school for 12 years. Her father was a hard working cab driver; her mother had many jobs, in addition to birthing ten children and caring for her own disabled mother.

The family wasn’t poor, but only because her parents sacrificed personal goals and worked as hard as they could to be financially comfortable.

Her play is set in the 1970s, and Shelley Barish has created a believable set that focuses on the main gathering place in the house — the kitchen. Homey, shabby and beloved, the room is full of interesting mementos of that era without feeling cluttered. (I was not alone in noticing that the clock on the set wall told the actual time, a nice touch and a visual clue that the connection between past and present is real and fluid).

Linda O’Shea/Forgette, played by Autumn Blazon-Brown, is our 20-something year old protagonist. She makes clear from the get go that, although she is narrator, she may not be a reliable one. “Memory shifts things,” she says. Telling old stories almost always involves the fallibility of memory. Two people, especially family members, remember the same event differently. She talks about the plasticity of memories, how they change over time and with each recollection to the point where, even when it comes to your own life, you may be considered an unreliable narrator.

She also points out the changes since the 1970s in the ways we communicate. “There was no posting; you lived your life in person,” she says wistfully.

Vin Vega, Barlow Adamson

Nonetheless, she is determined to tell the story of her family from her perspective to the best of her recollection.

And so we meet her mother, Jo (Amy Barker), father, Mike (Barlow Adamson), younger sister, Becky (Vin Vega) and Jo’s sister, Aunt Terri (the always fabulous Maureen Keiller). Over the next hour and 45 minutes (including an intermission), this cast of characters (along with a few hysterical cameos by a neighbor and priest) have one job and one job only — to tell the family story the way Linda remembers it.

Some of the characters are not too happy about their supporting roles. They want a monologue of their own, a chance to step up to the mike and explain their version of things. But Linda maintains control, doling out audience access sparingly and under strict time limits.

Although the plots twists and turns and the script’s clever lines draw easy laughs, the real meat and message lie in the family dynamics. They are a tight knit bunch, glued together by bonds of love, loyalty and compassion and — most importantly — humor. They soldier on, often griping and acting out, but they are actors cast in the same play and, at the end of the day, blood is thicker than anything.

Amy Barker, Autumn Blazon-Brown, Barlow Adamson

We are also treated to local parish customs and the hold the Catholic Church had over more than the religious aspects of their lives. Father Lovett and the infuriatingly patronizing church lady, Betty Heckenbach (both played with superb comic timing by Adamson) are examples of the hypocrisies and cruelty the church doled out with its communion wafers.

All the O’Sheas kowtow under the pressure to conform except Terri, who has known the pains of marital separation and barrenness, and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade.

The riveting Keillor is her usual scene stealing self. (She was likewise phenomenal as Sherri Rosen-Mason in the SpeakEasy Stage’s 2019 production of ‘Admissions’). Her performance is calculated, physical and impeccably paced. Yet, it doesn’t have that “staged” feel. Rather, she makes Terri the warmest, realest and most 3-dimensional character on the stage.

Maureen Keillor

While Barker brings a warmth and strength to Jo and Adamson is great in his cameo roles, Vega and Blazon-Brown are weak links, delivering their lines in muffled tones at the speed of light. Too many great jokes are quashed and after a certain time, audience frustration sets in and we stop trying to catch every sentence.

Nonetheless, for Keillor’s performance and a feel-good theatrical experience, ‘Incident’ fits the bill. There are some real belly laughs, thought-provoking messages and zinger one-liners in this production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

Review: MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ a Delightful Breath of Fresh Air

Karen MacDonald as Erma Bombeck in MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Karen MacDonald is nothing short of spectacular in the one-woman show, ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,’ now playing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through March 13. For 80 intermission-less minutes, she doesn’t just play Erma Bombeck; she IS Erma Bombeck, from her impeccable timing to the subtlest gesture and most delicate modulation. Don’t let this one slip away without seeing it. It is a balm of enormous power during these dark tundra days.

That power comes from Bombeck herself, whose simple, perceptive and — most importantly — funny writings are the backbone of the script. It feels so good to just relax, witness a magnificent performance, and laugh.

Daniel Zimmerman’s scenic design sets a perfect table for this theatrical feast. Complete with shag carpet (mustard and chartreuse), mid-century modern furniture and Hoover upright vacuum cleaner, we are instantly transported back to 1960s suburbia. His backdrop creation of a birds eye drone view of a typical neighborhood is as brilliant as it is effective. The effect is like being in a shadow box or viewing a large 3-D cinematic screen turned on its head.

We first meet Erma in her spotless living room, clad in a belted flowered shirtwaist dress, apron, pearls and heels, enjoying a moment’s peace before she starts ironing, vacuuming and folding laundry. MacDonald establishes rapport with the audience before she even utters a word. Yes, she really IS that good an actor.

By the time Erma utters her first line, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. “How,” she asks half in earnest, half rhetorically, “did I end up in suburbia?”

The rest of the monologue traces Erma’s life, from Bellbrook, Ohio to Cherrywood

Orchards community and motherhood to her spectacular career as columnist, book author and nationally sought speaker. Along the way, we are treated to snippets of Erma’s insightful, playful yet always spot-on humor and advice.

A bright woman straddling a line between domestic bliss and oblivion, Erma was a self-described “willing prisoner.” She had her kids early in life and compares the drudgery and workload of stay-at-home motherhood (the second oldest profession) to prostitution (the first), the difference being that mothers don’t get paid.

“I signed up for this life sentence,” she admits (though without, she notes, the usual possibility of parole for good behavior). At the end of the day, however, she offers a one-size-fits-all piece of advice: “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”

She escapes her sadness and emptiness by getting back to her writing, which was interrupted by her new role as housewife. She decides to use humor to tell the truth about her life in a column. After her third (and last) child starts kindergarten, she gets started.

Her success is immediate, her popularity taking off like a rocket into space. She goes from one column in a small, local papers to three columns weekly in a syndication of 900 papers nationwide. Yet she never loses sight or grasp of who she is and what her goals are.

“There was love in every line I wrote,” she says. There is also honesty, wit, laughter and pain. Remarkable for their  absence are anger and resentment.

We learn more about how a chance lecture by Betty Friedan launched Erma on her quest to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. She travelled for two years to garner support, writing her columns while on the road. She never missed one deadline during her entire career.

Towards the end of the play, Erma waxes poetic as she wistfully reflects on her career, cancer and waning years. “I was a stay at home mom,” she says. “The key to my writing is I am ordinary. Most of us are unremarkable.”

Although she never won a Pulitzer Prize, she is proud of her columns’ status as “top billing on the refrigerator.” She is such a good sport about everything, rolling with the punches and still harboring no resentment, regrets or complaints. “My plan was to wear out, not rust out,” she admits. “I wrote for me and the other mothers waiting to be recognized. I valued what everyone else took for granted- good old Mom.”

Her final words of advice on staying upbeat through the trials and tribulations of motherhood? “Seize every moment to make a difference,” she urges. “Who wants to live with regrets? Think of all those women on the Titanic who passed up the dessert tray.”

“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” Written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel. Directed by Terry Berliner; Scenic Design by Daniel Zimmerman; Costume Design by Teresa Snider; Lighting Design by Joel Shier; Sound Design by Scott Stauffer; Original Music Composed by Brett Marcias. Produced by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA through March 13.

For tickets and information, go to: https://mrt.org/

An Interview: Meet the Star and Director of MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

Karen MacDonald stars as Erma Bombeck in “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. / Photo: Megpix/Meghan Moore

by Shelley A. Sackett

LOWELL — It may surprise many to learn that Erma Bombeck, the celebrated humorist, was not Jewish. With lines like, “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I doing in the Pits?” the big-hearted mother of three had the wit, wisdom, and chutzpah that are hallmarks of a classic Jewish mother. Her nationally syndicated column, “At Wit’s End,” ran in 900 newspapers and championed the undervalued everyday lives of millions of stay-at-home suburban moms, offering them a cathartic lifeline of truth, daring, and laughter. She boosted their spirits by poking fun at herself and her life’s ups and downs in an original, comic voice that was both sassy and satiric.

Born in small-town Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working-class family in 1927, she wrote her first humorous column for her junior high school newspaper and went on to write for the Dayton Herald. She wrote a series of columns while at home with her young children and resumed her writing career in 1965 with biweekly humor columns. Within three weeks of the first articles’ publication, she was picked up for national syndication, appearing three times a week in 36 papers under the title “At Wit’s End.”

By the time of her death in 1969, she had written 15 books and appeared regularly on “Good Morning America.”
As a timely antidote to a bleak January’s cold, snow, and COVID, Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell is serving up a sunny dose of Bombeck’s humor in its one-woman show, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” from Feb. 24 through March 13.

Boston based actor, director, and teacher Karen MacDonald will bring Erma’s larger than life personality to the stage. She remembers Bombeck as part of her family’s life from a young age. Her mother, a big fan, would laugh out loud as she read the column every morning, often posting her favorites on the refrigerator.

“You couldn’t bother Mom until she finished ‘reading her Erma,’” MacDonald said by email.

In preparation for the role, MacDonald, who loves doing research, read many of her books, a biography, and revisited “The Feminine Mystique,” a book by Betty Friedan that Bombeck credited as her personal wake-up call.

In the course of her research, MacDonald discovered that Bombeck was complex, funny, and an astute observer of ordinary life. She also discovered much to admire: Bombeck’s diligence in writing three columns a week; her deep respect for the work women do; her devotion to her family; and her commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment.

“There is a rich amount of material for an actor to work with,” said MacDonald.

While pointing out that no one could really “play” Erma but Erma herself, “You want to gather as much as you can to bring to life such a fascinating woman, MacDonald said. “Then, you synthesize all that information and, hopefully, come up with your own Erma, true to her and true to yourself.”

Director Terry Berliner is also no stranger to Bombeck’s writing. “Erma Bombeck has always been part of my life. I do not know a world without her. Her stories showed me the importance of perspective, the power of a good story, and the significance of capturing the truth,” she said by email.

Although Bombeck was the epitome of a woman’s voice being heard across America at her time, she was written off by many for that very reason – because she was a woman in a man’s world. Playwright twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, who primarily work as reporters, co-wrote “At Wit’s End” to amplify that voice and garner the acclaim they believe she deserves.

“She was the most widely read columnist in the history of the country, yet she never won the Pulitzer Prize and is rarely mentioned in journalism schools,” the Engels said in an interview. “Most likely, her subject matter – families and children – was not considered as important as the thoughts of political pundits. Yet she chronicled a very important transformation in the lives of ordinary women in this country.”

MacDonald hopes the play will be “just the tip of Iceberg Erma” and that audiences will leave with a curiosity to reread her work, to learn more about her life, and to reconsider her place in American humor.

On a more visceral level, she also hopes “folks will find some relief, in these strange days, with laughter. It feels good to laugh.”

The play will be available virtually throughout its run. For access or in-house tickets, visit mrt.org/ERMA. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located at 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, is requiring all guests to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test and to wear masks at all times in the building. To learn more about the COVID policy, visit mrt.org/covid.

The Huntington’s Terrific ‘What The Constitution Means to Me’ Is A Timely Romp Through Murky Waters

Cassie Beck in the Huntington’s ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. Photos: Joan Marcus

by Shelley A. Sackett

What The Constitution Means to Me asks us to think about and get personal with the US Constitution, and that request couldn’t come at a more timely moment. It seems that hallowed document is front and center in our daily lives, whether we invite it or not. We read the news and, while we were aware Trump was shredding the Constitution with the hope it could never be pieced back together again, we now have to wonder — did he also flush it down the toilet?

We browse news of the Supreme Court’s latest actions and can’t help shivering at how the majority of the chief enforcers of our alleged democracy seem hell-bent on following his lead, emboldening those who would discriminate, marginalize and disenfranchise.

Which is why the Constitution is something I — and I’m sure I’m not alone — have thought about a lot lately.

Jocelyn Shek, Mike Iveson and Beck

That experience cemented a deep love for and knowledge of the document she unapologetically venerated until she realized, as she grew older and the rose tint of her glasses faded, that its authors’ intentions were more repressive than liberating.

The spectacularly talented Cassie Beck channels Heidi, and she is a powerhouse and marvel to witness. She is a consummate storyteller, appearing extemporaneous and almost ditzy at times as she methodically lays the groundwork for some heady conclusions. She addresses the audience with warmth, humor and honesty, whether playing her 15-year-old or 41-year-old self. She confesses of late she has been troubled by an unanswered question: what was it she had loved so much about the Constitution when she was a teenager?

For the next hour of the 105-minute intermission-less production, Heidi/Cassie wanders through the Constitution, exposing its flaws and malevolent intent with stories from her own family and from Supreme Court cases. (Authentic recordings of actual Supreme Court hearings add a compelling touch). She highlights how the Framers — all white male property owners — deliberately omitted reference to anyone else when they drafted the Constitution meant to provide equal protection under the laws of the land that document would rule.

Iverson

The Constitution, she points out, “was designed to protect the men who made it and their property — which was sometimes people — from the government.”

This has resulted in sanctioned violence against generations of Native Americans, people of color and women, including her own mother, whose first memory of her stepfather was him socking her mother in the face.

Along for the ride, we learn quite a bit about the Constitution in a way that is not at all reminiscent of law school. Schreck’s understanding and appreciation of that document is deep, and her script transforms complicated concepts into easily relatable vignettes. She tells story after story about women in particular who, she notes, aren’t even acknowledged as existing until the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920. “What does it mean if the Constitution doesn’t protect women?” she bemoans. By way of tragic example, she shares her own mother’s and grandmothers’ stories of heart-wrenching abuse, allowed by “centuries of laws that told them they were worthless.”

Later, after treating the audience to her primal scream/howling sob — her instinctive coping mechanism against rage and despair that has chased away more than a few boyfriends — she wonders aloud, ”Maybe this is just the appropriate response to everything right now?” That line drew thunderous applause.

Beck, Iverson

Lest this paint a dark and pedantic image of this dazzling production, be assured that there are as many moments of hilarity and lightness as there are of stark reckoning. Teenage Heidi doesn’t only love the Constitution; she also loves Patrick Swayze, magic spells and making out with boys. Beck is charming and engaging, and the physicality and expressiveness of her acting chops is as mesmerizing as it is enjoyable. This is Broadway-quality acting at our own back door.

The last 15 minutes of the show unfortunately break the mood and shift the pace. They are devoted to a debate about whether the Constitution should be scrapped or tweaked. A parliamentary debater, Emilyn Toffler, a 17-year-old Californian — who was annoyingly difficult to hear and understand — joined Beck on stage. The audience received pocket-sized copies of the Constitution (a nice party favor) and, after listening to both sides, was asked to vote whether to preserve the US Constitution as written or scrap it and start over. “It is because of the Constitution, not in spite of it, that we can have this debate,” said Toffler, who was arguing for preservation. In the end, the representative audience member chosen at random to deliver the verdict, agreed.

And so, at least as of last Wednesday night’s performance, the Constitution remains the ruling document of the land. For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/

‘What the Constitution Means To Me’ — Written by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar. Presented by Huntington Theater Company at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 20.

SpeakEasy’s ‘People, Places & Things’ Takes Us Into the Belly of Addiction

Marianna Bassham and the cast of People, Places & Things. Photos by Nile Scott Studios.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Like Jonah’s whale, addiction can swallow us whole. Unlike Jonah, however, who was freed after a mere three days of praying and repenting, those stuck in the belly of the addiction beast have a much tougher, longer and shakier road to hoe.

Some are up to the challenge and some crumble under the beast’s daunting weight. Some make it and some fake it. Some don’t know the difference and some could care less. And some will circle their self-destructive drain as long as they can, all the while ferociously denying they’re about to drown.

People, Places & Things, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s first-rate, must-see production, covers a lot of ground and checks a lot of boxes. Playwright Duncan Macmillan unsentimentally tackles the uncertain journey from addiction and recovery and the many shapes and forms it can take. For two and a half hours, the audience is in the thick of the raw process of rehab, detox, group therapy, relapse and the harrowing realization of what “one day at a time’ really looks like.

Nael Nacer, Bassham

If this sounds like a maudlin, predictable trope, it is anything but. Working with Macmillan’s sharp, incisive script, director David R. Gammons has created a phantasmagoria with flashing strobes (light design by Jeff Adelberg) and vibrating sounds (David Wilson) that make us feel like we are marching right beside these crumbling, addicted minds on the verge of self-destruction. He has also amassed a splendid ensemble cast to bring the script to life, most notably the exceptionally talented Marianna Bassham as Emma. Her performance alone is reason enough to high tail to BCA.

The play opens as a play within a play, with a backstage section with costumes and make up tables visible behind a curtain that bisects the sparse set. In the forefront, an area rug and furniture mark the set of Chekhov’s The Seagull, which the audience is plopped into as if dropped from a time machine. It is the final act and the main character Nina (played by Emma/Bassham) is on stage, holding a stuffed seagull and delivering a tragic speech. All seems normally Chekhovian until it becomes obvious that this Nina is completely out of it. She stumbles, blunders and eventually falls, taking the entire stage with her and plunging the set into darkness.

As the lights come back up, we are in the reception area for rehab and Emma is about to let us through the keyhole of what it means to live in her chaotic inner and outer world. The impossibly willowy Bassham is mesmerizing. Her staccato cadence and flawless timing, fluid physicality and frantic attempts to minimize the seriousness of her addiction are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Macmillan knows his way around clever dialogue and director Gammons has a powerhouse to deliver them in Bassham.

Kadahj Bennett, Bassham

The intake scenes with the Doctor (an excellent Adrianne Krstansky, who also plays the therapist and Emma’s mother) clue us in to the obstacles Emma will face on her road to recovery, which demands truthfulness as a non-negotiable first of 12 steps. She is an actress, we slowly realize, whose stage is both life and theater. The lines between acting and living her life have become so blurred that when she gives her name as “Nina,” her most recent role, we half believe she believes it.

In fact, she thinks she just needs “a tune up” and is only checking into rehab because no one will hire her unless she is certified as clean. This is all one colossal opportunity for her to both write the script and star in it. She’s not even willing to talk the talk, let alone walking the walk,  “Drugs and alcohol have never let me down,” she declares. “Addiction is a parasite. It will eat you until you’re dead,” the Doctor counters.

Once she is admitted, the bulk of the play is a behind-the-scenes look at residential rehab, from group therapy sessions to tragic relapse and back again. As always, the immensely talented Nael Nacer (Mark) is a standout. A fellow addict, he befriends Emma and holds her feet to the fire. He really cares about his recovery and he cares about her.

Mark has been around the rehab block and knows that recovery cannot happen without honesty, both with oneself and with others. Nacer brings confidence and decency to the role, a casual elegance that makes Mark seem genuine and transparent. He is the perfect foil to Emma’s desperate hiding behind defiance and lies. “If I’m not playing a character, I’m not sure I’m really there,” she finally admits.

There are moments of real surprise and pathos. In particular, a powerful scene when post-rehab Emma tries to make amends to her parents sheds unexpected light on the possible underlying reasons for Emma’s addictions and low self-esteem.

Macmillan has certainly given us plenty to chew on and posed some provocative, core questions. How do we make sense of a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control without self-medicating? How do we live an honest life in a world built on lies, where people reinvent themselves on social media and the “news” embraces alternative facts? How do we let go of control in the midst of chaos? How do we learn to love and be kind to ourselves? And, most importantly, how do we acknowledge those people, places and things that render us powerless over addiction — and then have the courage to leave them behind?

‘People, Places & Things’ — Written by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by David R. Gammon;, Scenic Design by Jeffrey Peterson; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by David Wilson, Video Design by Adam Stone. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Boston Center for the Arts through March 5.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

Huntington Theatre’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ Is A Triumph

Cast of The Huntington Theatre’s production of The Bluest Eye by Lydia R. Diamond

by Shelley A. Sackett

Brimming with sparkling ensemble acting, inspired staging and soulful song and dance, Huntington Theatre’s The Bluest Eye packs a wallop. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond’s faithful yet nuanced adaptation, Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking début novel about two poor Black families in 1940s Lorain, Ohio is brought to the stage with all its poetry, pathos and humor intact. You can almost feel Morrison’s presence in the audience, beaming pride and approval.

The story is neither easy nor pretty. Nor is it sugar-coated. A harrowing (and timely) tale about the insidious effects of racism, the 80-minute intermission-less play explores what happens to people — especially children — whose identities and self-images become distorted by the relentless oppression and cruelty they suffer.

What happens to that marginalized little Black girl who feels neglected, lonely and ugly? Whose hand local (white) shopkeepers won’t touch? Whose home life is abusive and unsafe? Whose only frame of reference for happiness, friendship and family harmony is the Dick and Jane primer she reads every day in school, the one about white, blue-eyed, blond Jane and her adoring, white parents?

Brittany-Laurelle, Hadar Busia-Singleton, and Alexandria King

From the get go, there is a feeling of community and engagement among the actors and between actors and audience. Performed on a raised, round stage between two semi-circles of audience members, the (masked) physical immediacy and intimacy heightens the mood. No one is hidden; no one can hide.

The play opens with two feisty preteen sisters discussing local gossip. Claudia (Brittany-Laurelle, who brings a powerful but contained individuality to the role) and Frieda (Alexandria King in a magnificently physical and expressive, punchy performance) will act as narrators and guides, and their sassy, lighthearted banter is the perfect foil to the heaviness of the story that will unfold. Like vocal choreography, their voices dance with and around each other, weaving a single tapestry from many strands.

Their main topic of conversation is the Breedlove family, the ugliest family in Lorain. “Their ugliness came from a conviction that they accepted without question,” Claudia explains. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove (played by the hypnotic Hadar Busia-Singleton, who manages to infuse her unbearably sad character with a whisper of hope) knows the world finds her Blackness ugly. “How do you get somebody to love you?” she asks over and over.

But she has a plan. She has figured out the key to being lovable. All she needs are blue eyes, as blue as Jane’s and Shirley Temple’s. “Then the teachers would see me and people would have to be nice to me,” she explains matter-of-factly.

R foreground: Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lindsley Howard, McKenzie Frye

Claudia and Frieda’s recollections and narrations are the backbone of the play, told with overlying reenactments of the various scenarios that have shaped and marked their and Pecola’s families. Mrs. Breedlove (McKenzie Frye) is a cleaning woman with a bum foot and missing front tooth who would go to the movies and dream of looking like Jean Harlow. Her husband Cholly (Greg Alverez Reid) suffered the kind of loss, humiliation and violence that doesn’t excuse his inexcusable acts, but at least provides context. Beneath their toughened exteriors, each carries the weight of unbearable despair. Together, they are a ticking time bomb, Pecola its collateral damage.

By comparison, Claudia, Frieda and their Mama (played by Ramona Lisa Alexander as unyielding and fussy yet kindhearted) lead a life of relative ease and stability. These three are the source of the play’s lightness and humor. As Claudia, Brittany-Laurelle brings down the house in the reenactment of a scene when she received a blond, white baby doll as a gift. To her mother’s disbelief and horror, rather than covet it, she destroys it, but only after she has humiliated and terrorized it. She hates its so-called beauty. “What was I supposed to do with that?” she asks without irony.

Through a series of events that would include spoilers, Pecola’s prayers for blue eyes and all that means seem to be answered by the magic of Soaphead Church, a charlatan soothsayer, played brilliantly by Brian D. Coats. Yet, it is at such a steep price that we are left grieving for this child whose innocent light has been extinguished.

Under Awoye Timpo’s direction, The Bluest Eye brings a lot of extras to the table. She makes wonderful use of a trio of women who appear throughout the production, imbuing them with many of the gestures and props familiar to fans of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” They are welcome palette cleansers, acting as part Greek chorus, part harpies, and part goddesses. The interweaving of a capella spirituals (Frye is a knockout) and choreography (especially the slow-motion battle scene between Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove) is inspired and welcome.

The Boston theater scene is replete with many productions that are well worth seeing. Only a handful rise to the level of “must see.” The Bluest Eye is one of them.

‘The Bluest Eye’ – Based on the book by Toni Morrison, adapted for stage by Lydia R. Diamond, Dramaturgy by Sandy Alexandre. Directed by Awoye Timpo; Set Design by Jason Ardizzone-West; Costume Design by Dede Ayite and Rodrigo Muñoz; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Aubrey Dube; Original Music by Justin Ellington; Choreography by Kurt Douglas; Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston Center for the Arts through March 26. Digital recordings available Feb. 14 through April 9.For tickets and information, go to: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/

Huntington Theatre’s Ambitious ‘Teenage Dick’ Challenges Our Assumptions

Louis Reyes McWilliams, Shannon DeVido, Emily Townley, Portland Thomas, Gregg Mozgala in ‘Teenage Dick’, at The Huntington Calderwood/BCA. Photos: Teresa Castracane

by Shelley A. Sackett

From the moment he walks onto the bare stage and addresses the audience in the first of many private monologues, it’s clear 17-year-old Roseland High School junior Richard Gloucester (Gregg Mozgala) has an angle beyond just establishing a connection with the audience. What that angle is is less clear, and will shape-shift with dizzying speed during the next 70 minutes until the audience is left in a delicious murky space of questioning almost everything they thought they knew about both Richard and themselves.

That Richard (and, as it turns out, Mozgala) has cerebral palsy, however, is indisputable. He wears two leg braces and walks with a spastic gait. It galls him that the junior class president is Eddie, the lunkhead quarterback and the vice president is Clarissa, a pandering religious toady, while he, imminently more qualified, languishes in his role as secretary.

But languish he will no more. Whatever it takes, this Richard is determined to rise to the top.

Mike Lew’s ambitious ‘Teenage Dick,’ a thinly disguised riff on Shakespeare’s “King Richard III,” appropriates the Elizabethan amoral, villainous scoliotic protagonist bent on murdering his way to the throne and recasts him as an impishly fiendish disabled high school senior, hell-bent on not just winning the election, but humiliating and grinding his opponents into dust.

Commissioned by Apothetae theater company, which is dedicated to productions that “explore and illuminate the ‘disabled experience,’” and where Mozgala is artistic director, ‘Teenage Dick’ deliberately features disabled actors on stage. The result lends a riveting authenticity. These actors aren’t just playing a part; they reveal what disability really feels like from the inside.

Back to teenage Richard who, still in his introductory aside, informs us matter-of-factly that he will “vault past my inglorious station” and become class president by systematically destroying the competition and holding dominion over the entire school. “I come to bury Eddie, not to praise him. Is this a ballot I see before me?” he asks in a mashup of well-known Shakespearean lines.

But why would he do something so mean? “Because they all hate me, that’s why! I was stamped for their hatred from birth. They see my unpleasant shape and like a magnet I must repulse,” he tells us. Yet, from the play’s prologue to its epilogue, we are left wondering: Is Richard’s self-hatred the result of his classmates’ rebuff or its cause? And, more critically, is disability something you learn to accept and adjust to or is it just one of life’s hurdles you strive to rise above?

Before those enquiries have time to sink in, poof! We are transported to Elizabeth York’s (Emily Townley) English class, where Richard’s classmates are none other than Eddie (Louis Reyes McWilliams), Clarissa (Portland Thomas) and “Buck,” (the show stopping, scene -stealing Shannon DeVido), Richard’s wheelchair-bound best friend.

Aptly, the class is studying Machiavelli’s The Prince, the original handbook for unscrupulous politicians. Unsurprisingly, Richard has devoured every word. He is armed and ready for election battle. He even has a plan: he will run a covert campaign.

He also has an accomplice. Or two. He has imperiously assumed Buck would be on board. He also manipulates the support of Ms. York —who is advisor to the drama club — by promising he will make sure the school’s discretionary funds don’t all go football. “I know someone like you understands the importance — the all-consuming social importance — of live theater!” she croons. When Richard responds by mugging to the audience, the masked crowd went wild.

Just as Shakespeare’s King Richard III seduces Lady Anne in his scrabble to the throne, Richard decides he needs to add Eddie’s cool ex-girlfriend, dancer Anne Margaret (the impossibly lithe and lovely Zurin Villanueva) to his arsenal. He turns his Machiavellian charm her way, conning her into asking him to the Sadie Hawkins dance and giving him dance lessons.

With his unbalanced and unpredictable shuffle, Richard is a challenge, but one Anne is up for. The scenes between these two are among the play’s most critical. They address disability head on and from the heart. Anne, intimately connected with the joy her body affords her, teaches Richard to acknowledge and accept his own limitations rather than fight against it. Their interactions are tender, intimate and beautifully staged.

“Richard, can I ask? What’s it like? Like the way that you move, what does it feel like to you?” Anne asks sincerely.

When Mozgala/Richard answers, the authenticity is palpable. “I’ve never been asked… You know how sometimes in winter when you hit an ice patch you didn’t know was there, how you brace yourself before you’re about to slip on the ice?… That’s what it’s like for me all the time,” he answers.

The interactions between the sardonic hilarious Buck and Richard are similarly loaded. These two travel the same path and when they talk about it, it is from a place of shared legitimacy. Yet, their approaches couldn’t be more different.

“Do you believe our social station is circummountable, or is it immutable? Don’t you believe we can rise past our station, given sufficient cunning and skill?” Richard asks. “Nope, I don’t. I’m not like you, yearning to fly beyond nature’s boundaries like some kind of disabled nerd Icarus,” Buck replies.

But then she asks him the bigger question, the one at the heart of his personal psychological limitation. “Richard. Why can’t you be happy just being yourself?” Richard responds: “This [high school] is as good as it gets for us. This isn’t our awkward phase, it’s the rest of our lives.”

Although the writing and acting is uneven, this production is worth seeing for DeVido’s performance as Buck alone. Her delivery, gesticulations and wheelchair maneuvering are spellbinding and side-splittingly hysterical. Lew has given her the play’s best lines and she chews them up, spitting them out with relish.

Kudos also to Mozgala and his nuanced performance, Villanueva for her dancing and  Palmer Hefferan for her punchy sound design.

Alas, Lew’s shifts from satire to TV sitcom to high drama, melodrama and horror give the audience a mild case of the bends, and by the time Richard reveals his true self in his epilogue monologue, emotional fatigue has set in. Yet these words arouse us from our sensory overload:

“You already decided who I was before it was mine to choose it, so what else could I do but act out the role that’s been writ? If that makes me the villain, welllll… You already knew I wasn’t the hero from the moment I came limping your way. So close your eyes and forget about me. You always do anyhow,” Richard says.

Lew’s zinger closing line goes to the heart of the biggest issues ‘Teenage Dick’ addresses, that is: Did Richard choose to be a villain or was he forced into that role? Is he undone by his own psychological defects or by outside forces that have marginalized and bullied him? And, ultimately and most importantly, how much of the responsibility do we in the able-bodied world bear based on how we might have perceived and treated the disabled?

For more information and to buy tickets, go to https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2021-2022/teenage-dick/.

‘Teenage Dick’ – Written by Mike Lew; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan; Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker; Choreography by Jennifer Weber; Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at The Calderwood Pavillion, 527 Tremont St., Boston through January 2, 2022.‘Teenage Dick’ – Written by Mike Lew; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan; Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker; Choreography by Jennifer Weber; Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at The Calderwood Pavillion, 527 Tremont St., Boston through January 2, 2022.

Greater Boston Stage’s ‘All Is Calm’ Strikes the Perfect Chord

by Shelley A. Sackett

Cast of ‘All is Calm’ at Greater Boston Stage Company. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

From the first note of the first song in the remarkably affecting ‘All Is Calm,’ the choreography chops of its director, Ilyse Robbins, are indisputably evident. Two lines of uniformed men, distinguishable by their country’s military dress, slowly march to the front of the stage as they sing the Scottish folk song, “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” They briefly merge, forming a united single line, before those in the back row return to their original and separate positions. This powerful prologue literally sets the stage and tone for the next intermission-less 70 minutes. We have entered a holy place of unity where a folksong can become a hymnal and where men have the power and ability to come together as one, even if it is merely for a fleeting moment.

This documentary musical tells a well-known true story almost exclusively through a cappella song. On Christmas Day in 1914, with World War I just five months old, enlisted men on both sides of the mucky no-mans-land trenches in Ypres, Belgium emerged to put aside their political differences and celebrate the day and their shared humanity.

Written by Peter Rothstein, the founding director of Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis who also worked at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, the play transcends its Christmas Day message and carols to deliver a powerful and universal message promoting peace, human dignity and reconciliation — a message no less welcomed by those of us lighting Hanukkah candles, spinning dreidels and recalling the battles faced by the Maccabees.

Combining storytelling, historical details, bits of poetry, archival letters and a score of 30 songs, the cast of ten men humanize their journey: from the optimism of their enthusiastic enlistment and deployment to the grim reality of war to the miraculous Christmas respite and momentary truce and back again to battle, they are individuals first, soldiers second. Robbins has gathered a splendid ensemble of complementary singing voices and acting styles, yet masterfully allows space for each performer’s unique qualities to shine as well.

The story itself is predictable. Men susceptible to war fever and the excitement it generated are crestfallen to realize that they might not survive the war they assumed would be over by Christmas. Hope curdles to despair; dreams of adventure morph into nightmares of doom. There is no revisionist history here. Rothstein presents the hardships and suffering of war in full mud-soaked misery.

What is not predictable is the emotional majesty created by Lichte and Takach’s clever interweaving and ordering of songs, particularly those chosen during the truce segment. Amidst the heartache and heartbreak of a Christmas celebrated with death and isolation instead of family and hearth, the Allied troops suddenly make out the familiar melody of “Silent Night” — sung in German. Unarmed, hands lifted and hoisting white handkerchiefs, the Germans emerge one by one. Sworn enemies unexpectedly find themselves face-to-face, one-to-one with the enemy, and “all is calm. All is bright.” Indeed, for those gun-less few moments, all is breathtakingly silent.

The men play football, exchange gifts and even help each other bury those whose deaths they caused. They talk as men, not enemies. “I have now a very different opinion of the Germans,” one soldier wistfully says.

Of course, this bottom-up hiatus can never last. Commanding officers on both sides put an immediate halt to the fraternization, and the soldiers reluctantly return to their trenches, guns obediently re-cocked and aimed. The plaintive “Auld Land Syne,” an ode to kinship remembered, switches almost imperceptibly to “We’re Here Because We’re Here,” sung mournfully as a lamentation to the immovable trap the troops find themselves in.

There are a few tricky moments with the European accents, but the cast is uniformly spot on with the a cappella singing, blending beautifully and consistently. Among the solo standouts are Christopher Chew, Brad Peloquin and David Jiles, Jr. Michael Jennings Mahoney’s haunting tenor beautifully bookended the show from prologue to epilogue.

Erik D. Diaz’s minimalist set design achieves maximum effect. A few packing crates, a starry full mooned backdrop and the constant slow seep of gauzy haze set the proper tone without distraction.

Although there is no ambiguity that ‘All Is Calm’ references Christmas, its universal message of peace transcends specificity of time, place and religion. Particularly during these times of increasing political rancor and division, this meditative production is palpably apolitical, yet makes its point while leaving us to wonder: What if ‘No Man’s Land” were truly ‘Everyman’s Land?” What if those at the top left negotiations to those in trenches? And what if those troops, ordered to go back to war after tasting the fruits of peace, had listened to Winston Churchill and simply gone on strike?

‘All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’ – Written by Peter Rothstein; Vocal Arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Directed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction by Matthew Stern; Set Design by Erik D. Diaz; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Costume Design by Bethany Mullins. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company at 395 Main St., Stoneham through December 23, 2021.For more information or to purchase tickets, call (781) 279-2200 or visit greaterbostonstage.org. Masks are required for all visitors, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. For more information about safety, visit geraterbostonstage.org/health-and-safety.html.